Lilianna’s Curse – Chapter One
I curse you, your family, and your family’s family.
They will have a home, but they will lose it.
They will have family, but they will lose it.
They will have love, but they will lose it.
No home, no family, no love.
The waxing moon cast its calming light over the paddock adjoining the Wentworth barn. Lilianna crept from her hiding place behind the thief’s wagon and dashed across the pathway toward the barn. If she were caught, she’d be beaten or worse. Her brother would be furious she’d attempted such idiocy, but she dared not turn back. She yanked open the barn door, freezing for a moment when the creaking sounded to her like thunder in the silent night. She looked around. No one came for her with guns ready to kill. She stole inside, pausing until her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Restless horses shifted, moving and snorting within their stalls, the air rich with the sweet smell of hay. She surveyed the rows of stalls facing each other within the large one-room structure. Humming a comforting tune to calm her nerves, she began walking down the center aisle. Through the open windows, the moonlight danced across the minor puffs of dust her footsteps raised from the packed earth floors. She took her time, stopping at each stall to soothe the more excitable horses with a pat and a word or two.
The barn was clean and well kept. At least this thief cared for the horses he stole. At the end stall, she found what she’d been seeking. She chirruped “Shavo” and heard an answering whinny. The big bay swung his head over the half-door, his ears pricked forward. Her brother would be so happy when she brought his horse back. Smiling, Lilianna withdrew an apple from the pocket of her skirt and offered it. With a snort, he took the fruit in his teeth, his velvety lips tickling her skin.
She chuckled. “Greedy, aren’t you, sweet boy.” She opened the door and slipped inside the stall. Moonlight filtering through the open-air windows lit up his coat like a dark red flame. He tossed his head, the black mane swirling in the small enclosure.
“Showing off, Shavo? Yes, you are a beauty.” She quickly ran her hands over his barrel and withers. His groomed coat and legs showed no sign of ill use. The man, Wentworth, was lucky. She’d not be responsible for her brother’s actions should his horse be harmed. She slipped the rope she’d brought around the horse’s neck and fashioned a loop over his nose.
“I’ll check on the horses. They sound restless tonight.” At the man’s deep voice, Lilianna’s heart raced in a staccato beat.
A figure loomed in the entrance to the barn. Moonlight framed the man, casting frightening shadows across the hay-strewn dirt floor.
Akòosh! Fear flooded through her. Surely she would be found out. Lilianna drew back into the shadow of the stall and hid behind the bay. Hopefully, the Gadjo wouldn’t conceive the possibility that a Roma would dare to set foot on his property. Her pulse raced and her heart pounded, drowning out her shaky breaths.
Shavo ignored her and buried his nose in the bucket.
Slowly, the man made his way down the stalls. He talked quietly to each horse in a calm, comforting manner. From the snuffles and whinnies, the horses responded to his touch much as they did her own. She might’ve admired his way with them if he hadn’t been a thief. It galled her that Romas were considered thieves and hanged as a matter of course while wealthy Gadjos who stole would never be punished.
The man approached Shavo’s stall. “Come to me, King.”
As Shavo raised his head, Lilianna remembered the halter. Fear skittered along her nerves and her heart slammed against her chest. I am lost!
“What is this, boy?”
From the shadows of the stall, she watched him enter and inspect the makeshift noose. With a curse, he took it off and tossed it aside. Shavo moved restlessly and one hoof caught the side of her felt slipper. Pain slashed through her.
She gasped, trying to contain the agony of her bruised foot. Too late, she clamped her hand over her mouth.
Unsheathing his dagger, Stephen Wentworth searched the shadows, his entire body on alert. “Who goes there?”
Stephen moved King aside, spotting the culprit pressed against the wall. “Come out of there,” he commanded. His new horse meant saving the family fortune. That King might have been stolen on his first night in his barn raised Stephen’s choler to the breaking point. This will not stand. I vow it on the Wentworth name.
The slight figure straightened and took one step before crumpling to the floor with a cry. A soft feminine cry.
What in God’s name was a woman doing in his stable? She sat on the ground massaging her foot.
His temper cooled and he slid his knife into its scabbard. “You are hurt.”
“Shavo stepped on my foot. Gooroovnì!”
Gooroovni? Though the language was not known to him, the inference was clear. “Can you stand?” He’d figure out what she’d planned when he got her out of the barn. He reached to help her up.
“Pah, I am not crippled and I do not need a Gadjo’s help.” Equal parts of pain and fury laced through her voice.
Surprised by her anger, Stephen stepped back. The woman maneuvered to a standing position. She attempted one step, but stopped short of putting her weight on her injured foot. He waited.
“Perhaps if you brought me something to lean on?” She glared at him as if he had been the one to injure her.
“And have you bash me over the head? I think not.” He offered her his arm, and she allowed him to lead her out of the barn.
Pain creased her face as she moved, but though he offered, she refused to put her full weight on him. Stubborn woman! “I will not topple to the ground if you lean on me.”
“I am fine as I am,” she muttered, not quite hiding the wince she took with every step.
“Blast it.” Annoyed, but grudgingly intrigued, he turned and swept her into his arms, ignoring her struggles. “Do not be foolish. You weigh little more than a bundle of hay and it will be dawn if we go at the pace you were setting.”
She stilled and looked up at him. “Thank you.”
The woman remained silent as he crossed the paddock and strode to an empty cottage used to house workers during harvest. At the stoop, he set her on her feet long enough to raise the latch on the door. He turned to pick her up, but she shook her head and crossed the threshold into the cottage in front of him with a queenly manner, as if she hadn’t been caught trying to steal his prize stallion. Her limp ruined the effect, however. He stifled a grin. Thievery was a dire subject. He should not be amused by her.
After lighting the candles on the mantel, Stephen helped the mysterious woman to the narrow bed in the corner. With a slight wince, she sank down onto the quilts, not quite able to hold a groan. She immediately removed her soft-soled shoe to examine her foot. The outer ridge of the sole was a combination of black and blue and noticeably swollen.
Stephen knelt by the fireplace and set to work lighting the tinder kept at the ready by the household staff. After he had a good blaze going from the logs beside the hearth, he retrieved the basin by the larder and filled it with water from the pitcher.
Placing the basin on the floor next to the bed, he knelt and removed his neckcloth. After he soaked it in the water and wrung it out, he lifted her foot and placed it on his thigh.
“I can do it,” she said when he attempted to minister to her.
“No doubt.” He ventured a glance at her. “Do you argue every time you open your mouth?”
“Only with Gadjos who think they can order me around,” she countered.
A mark on the outside of her ankle drew his attention. He leaned closer. A small tattoo of a bird. “What is this?” Unable to resist, he traced the delicate image with his finger. Her skin trembled under his touch and set off an answering chord in him. Unasked for and unwanted, he tamped down the budding emotion.
“A linnet, the symbol of my family.”
“It is beautiful.” One more touch and he pulled his attention away from the lovely sight she presented.
As he touched the cool cloth against her bruise, she jumped. “My apologies.” He wrapped her injured foot as gently as he could.
She leaned back against the cushions. Cloudy black hair framed a delicately shaped face. Deep chocolate brown eyes accented by long black lashes tilted upwards at the corners gave her an exotic, almost wild appearance.
Her homespun blouse gathered at the top. Colorful embroidery lined the neck and cuffs and the blue ribbon that tightened the gathers had become untied in her exertions. The loosened top exposed creamy shoulders kissed by the sun. He frowned at the image that arose of his lips tasting her bare skin.
Her full skirt held a myriad of colors bleached by much wear and washing. Nevertheless, it lent a reckless air to its owner. The flow of cloth stopped just past her knees revealing slim, tanned legs. Her calves were beautifully muscled and stirred him unreasonably. Attracted to a would-be thief? Impossible.
As a man used to the pale white complexions of court ladies, the effect of her bronzed skin left him disconcerted. If the evidence and his suspicions proved true, she’d been about to steal his horse. And somehow, he was waiting on her like a blasted maidservant. That would end now.
“What were you doing in my stable?” He boomed in a tone that none of his men dared question. By God, he’d get the truth out of her and send her on her way. He didn’t stop to think that he’d already decided to let her go whether she’d planned to steal from him or not. He would ponder that absurdity later.
“Shavo belongs to my brother and I was taking him back.” She straightened with a dignity that belied her clothing. “You stole him.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Are you mad? I am Stephen Balford Wentworth, lord of the Great British Empire and scion to Wentworth Estates. I own more land than you can see and a score of horses.” He pushed off from the wooden floor; positive she’d lost her mind. “Why would I steal—Shavo, you called him?”
“Shavo is not any horse. My brother raised him from a colt and trained him.” She took a breath, the racing of the pulse at her neck betraying her bravado. “He gallops like the wind and has the heart of a warrior. He can run any English horse into the ground.”
“I bought King from a dealer at the fair who assured me he’d bred him from his prize mare.” This wisp of a female challenged his honor without worry about her situation and the potential consequences. Presumptuous wench.
“Pah, then I could sell you my grandmother’s famous potion that will bring you many women who will fall at your feet.” She smiled. “Shavo is a Romani horse, bred and trained by a Roma.”
He stopped pacing. “You are from the Gypsy encampment by the river then?”
“Our home is there, yes.”
“My family has allowed the Gypsies to stay there for the past twenty years.
We do not steal from them.”
She studied him closely. “It may be that you were duped into buying a stolen horse.” She rose and carefully rested her bandaged foot on the floor. “I will consider what you said. And I will let you stable Shavo until I am better. He would be difficult for me to handle while I am injured.”
“Damn civil of you,” he muttered. “I need not your permission to keep my own horse.”
“My brother’s horse.”
She stepped closer to him and he caught the scent of wildflowers and meadows. Damn, she was intoxicating.
“I must go.” Her voice shook, whether from pain or nerves, he could not tell.
“I cannot let you.” He put his hand on her arm.
Surprise widened her eyes. She stared down where they touched. “I am a prisoner?”
“I need proof the horse was stolen before I let you take him.” He carefully removed his hand. “Is it not in your best interests to help?”
She smiled slightly. “A Gadjo and a Roma working together?”
“How about just Stephen and…?”
A stunning name for a stunning woman. “You can stay in the cottage while your foot is healing.” This was going well. Stephen walked toward the door.
“No.” Lilianna placed her hands on her hips.
“You must,” he blurted before he could stop himself. He’d gone mad about this woman; that was clear. What about this capricious Gypsy stirred him so? “I mean, we can settle the ownership of King sooner.”
“Shavo,” she reiterated. “I will not be held against my will. This is a nice cage, but a cage still.”
“What about your foot?” He grasped at this straw.
“Pah, I am stronger than you weak Gadjos. It already feels better. See?” She tested her foot by stepping forward. “A little pain. It is nothing.” She reached the cottage door.
What if he never saw her again? “When will I see you?” He held his breath, suddenly aware how important her answer was to him.
She shrugged and her creamy shoulder peeked through the neck of her blouse. “As you said, your family allows my people to camp by the river. Come to the camp.” She opened the door. “And I will return your fine neckcloth to you.” With that, she turned and limped out.
From the window of the cabin where her wildflower scent still lingered, Stephen watched as she stooped to pick up a fallen branch to use as a support. With a slight limp, she disappeared down the path leading to the river. Definitely stubborn. “I won’t let you vanish on me. I will see you again.”
❧ ❧ ❧
Luke Bennett pulled up to the front gate and put his rental in park. He stared at the huge split rail entry. The boldly penned name, “Tremaine’s Greenhills,” burned into the crosspiece dared any poor slob to cross its threshold at his own risk. The sight hit him like a body blow.
Fifteen years, he had planned. From his first job as an intern at age eighteen, he’d saved every dime. Working his way up in the company, he’d poured every bit of cash he could into money markets. Fifteen years, he had waited. And he’d played lackey to anyone who could take him a step closer to his goal. Finally, with the money he’d earned, Luke bought into a consortium that swallowed up land like an insatiable gourmand. Perfect for his plan. Fifteen ass-kissing years. That was over. It was his turn.
He slid the SUV in gear and eased the vehicle forward. A mile down the tree-lined road, an immense house rose into view. A typical Kentucky manor for a rich horse breeder. Like a temple to the God-of-the-Almighty-Dollar his father had always said. White columns supported a third floor balcony that wrapped around the house. He’d run all the way from one end of the well-tended floors to the other at the age of ten.
He’d arrived early to savor the triumph so close he could taste it. His emotions under control, he parked the car beside the massive horse barn and got out. He couldn’t resist looking inside the place where he’d spent a lot of time. Horses in stalla on either side, the smell of hay and leather, all irresistible to a boy hell-bent on being a cowboy. He took a deep breath. Not the same.
He walked to the end of the center aisle. Only one stall with signs of use, the others swept clean. He scanned the tack room. Almost empty, it didn’t resemble his memories. He shrugged off the sadness that threatened to swamp him. This location would make a good clubhouse. He left without another glance.
Greener than he remembered, the fields stretched as far as he could see. A wisp of wind kicked up dirt from the walkway in front of the barn. On the rise behind the paddock a mist floated, golden in the early morning light. He pulled out a pocket watch, the only thing he had left from his dad. Another twenty minutes before the other bidders arrived. He wanted to see why the soft haze lingered over that one spot. When he crested the hill, he saw her.
A woman sat beneath a huge oak tree, its branches sheltering her from the sun. Her head rested on her knees. For a moment, the image wavered, and patterns of light shifted under the tree, blurring his vision.
“Go to her,” a voice whispered in his mind.
What the hell? Luke shook his head to clear the intrusion. None of his business. He turned to leave.
As if beckoned, the woman lifted her head.
He stopped. Tremaine’s daughter. She’d returned home to sell Greenhills, which made her important to his consortium’s plans. His research indicated she made a decent living working as a features photographer for National Geographic.
She had a State of New York driver’s license and an address in Manhattan. Traveling for the magazine with all expenses paid provided an added benefit. She’d learned from the best how to manipulate the system. Her old man would be proud.
Luke grimaced. Only child Corinne Tremaine was about to get a new best friend. He’d make nice even if it killed him—a temporary affliction. A smile pasted on his face, he walked down the knoll toward the daughter of the man he’d hated most of his life.
As he closed the distance between them, unease wove through him and tightened his gut. The only picture he had of her on file was a fax of the grainy picture on her license. He wanted her to be a woman he could dismiss. But he would’ve noticed her if she’d passed him in the street. Any man would approve of her trim athletic build and curly wind-tossed hair. As golden as the glistening mist surrounding her. He told himself it was too short for his taste, however well it suited her. He stopped a couple of feet away.
Blue eyes reddened by tears locked with his. He caught the tracks of moisture upon her cheeks. Grief slammed into him, obliterated his cool analysis of the woman he wanted to hate. Shaken, he found himself wanting to offer comfort. He understood soul-wrenching pain, hell; it’d made him stronger.
Maybe that’s why he’d felt her sorrow.
The grief of his enemy’s daughter.
“I’m sorry.” His words spilled out before he could stop them.
“I—Who are you?” She straightened and dashed her hands across her face to erase her tears.
He nodded. “I have a meeting about the sale.” Might as well establish the business relationship. A potent reminder to keep his distance. And why should he care about Tremaine’s daughter?
She remained sitting, her back against the trunk, head tilted to look at him.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll leave you alone.”
“It’s silly, really.” Her voice quivered and she sniffed. “Mom and Dad died over a year ago and I thought I’d moved past it.”
Another wave of grief cut through him. Why did he feel her pain? “I read about the accident.” Remember her father was Nathan Tremaine.
She scanned the fields with tear-filled eyes. “It’s Greenhills. Coming here for the first time since their funerals, I mean. The memories—I miss my parents.” She blew out a deep breath. “I didn’t expect everything to come flooding back.”
He didn’t excel at personal interaction, not if it didn’t have to do with a deal. And he felt like an ass towering over her. “You mind?” He gestured to the ground.
Surprise touched her face. “I don’t. But, your suit?”
His Tom Ford suit. Luke lowered himself to the grass across from her. “Don’t worry about it.”
She sighed. “The last time I spoke to them was on a Sunday night. Mom had the phone, but Dad kept chiming in from his recliner in the family room.” She swallowed hard. “They begged me to come visit.” She looked over at Luke. “I’d just returned from a work trip. I made excuses.” She picked up a fallen leaf and seemed to study the veins running through it. “It’s the last time I talked to them. The next week, they were killed in the accident.”
Another tear escaped and made its way down the curve of her cheek. Her skin was a sun-kissed color that spoke of work spent outdoors.
“There was nothing you could do.” He’d felt the same way when his father…
She broke in. “I regret not visiting more often. Not just that time; others. I love New York, the noise, the plays, and its in-your-face energy. My parents and Greenhills would always be here when I was ready to come back. Well, I’m back and it’s too late.” Sobs pushed their way through and she covered her face with her hands.
Luke sat beside her, the grief bonding them against his will. He raised his hand to comfort her, touch her, help her…then let it fall helplessly. Nothing had helped him. He waited for the storm of guilt and sorrow to subside.
She drew in a hiccupping breath. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you didn’t expect to deal with something like this.” Her eyes, made more brilliant by the residual tears, glistened like the bluest sea. “Thanks for being so kind.”
He blinked. Whoa. I’m not kind. Unsettled by the connection they’d inexplicably forged, he stole a look at his watch.
“It’s almost ten, isn’t it?” she murmured. “That’s when the meeting starts.”
He nodded and stood.
She pushed herself to her feet and held out her hand. “Cori Tremaine.”
“Luke Bennett from Edgerton, Milan, and Bridges.”
As they shook hands, a tremor rippled through him, igniting shocks along his nerve endings. A confusing kaleidoscope of images flashed through his mind.
First, a dark-haired woman dressed in a peasant blouse and colorful skirt cooked by a campfire. Then, a man and woman from another time embraced in the moonlight. They radiated an overwhelming sensation of passion. And love.
Cori gasped, tightened her grip; moved toward him. Pulse racing, he sucked in a breath.
“Nice to meet you.” He managed to keep his voice from betraying his reaction.
A tremor at her generous mouth caught his attention. She looked stunned.
Disconcerted, he broke contact immediately. “I’d better go.”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
Luke reached the top of the hill and looked back. Cori was staring at her hand. He flexed his, still hot from her touch. Those images, the connection he’d felt when she’d touched him. Why her? Why Cori Tremaine?
❧ ❧ ❧
Two hours later, the rest of the buyers left after a brief discussion with the broker. During the tour, the group had viewed a guest cottage by the river. A haze, much like the one he’d seen when he met Cori, surrounded it, but dissipated by the time they inspected the inside of the structure. Damn strange.
He frowned, disliking that he felt the need to return to the tiny house. That one summer, he’d thought it was the best time he’d ever had. As a child, he’d run all over the property but had never entered this building. Houses were boring. The rough-hewn structure with carved shingles hadn’t been exciting enough for a hellion who’d spent every waking hour outdoors. He’d played cowboys and Indians where every bush hid the enemy and every hill challenged a little boy to climb it. So why now, why did this one draw him?
Luke pushed open the door and stepped into the main area. Nothing special. Another monument to old man Tremaine’s vanity. He’d wanted a genuine English cottage by damn, so he’d bought one to plunk down in the middle of Kentucky. Ridiculous.
A stone fireplace with a wooden mantel filled the wall opposite the door. An aged brass-framed mirror above it showed its age, the black speckles in the corners bleeding upward like spider webs. Pewter candleholders sat on each end of the mantel like ancient sentinels. Maybe he’d keep one as a trophy.
Luke stepped closer, looked into the mirror and remembered Cori Tremaine’s face. The smell of gardenias surrounded him and his hand pulsed as it had when they’d touched. The current that had joined them jolted him anew.
The whisper reverberated in the stillness. Come back?
He scanned the room. Empty. Where the hell had it come from? What language was it and why did he think he knew what it meant?
Luke wheeled but nothing moved. He was losing it. To close to the justice he’d working toward. He was hearing things.
He was alone. He loosened his tie and released the top button on his shirt. On edge, he approached the fireplace.
Daylight from the open door arced across the room. Patterns of gold shifted and shimmered in the mirror. The patterns accelerated until the blurs solidified into figures. Luke squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them.
In the center of the mirror, a man and a woman stood looking at each other. A golden light surrounded them. The glow wavered.
The man turned and looked at him. Disbelief warred with surprise. Luke leaned forward, bumping the column supporting the mantle. One of the candleholders, too close to the edge, teetered and fell.
He lunged to catch it but overshot its location. His head smashed against one of the heavy andirons. Pain bludgeoned his skull a split second before the blackness claimed him.
❧ ❧ ❧
Lilianna opened her eyes. Stephen stood in front of her unharmed. He wore his uniform and his beloved face was just as she remembered. Still unsteady, she swayed. Stephen caught her upper arms and steadied her. “I have you, Piramni.”
Relief swept through her. “Stephen! I never thought to hear you call me sweetheart again.”
He dropped his hands and frowned. “I do not understand.”
“Do you not remember?” She rubbed her temple. “You were hurt…dying. Then, I was shot. Pain, then, nothing.”
“My head hurts.” Lilianna leaned against the mantel. “Avi pali,” she whispered.
Stephen took her hand and looked around. “How is it this happened? The cottage is here, but the chairs, the coverings over the windows—” He rubbed his forehead. “It is all different.”
It was, but that wasn’t what mattered. “Do you remember the battle? Do you remember I found you?”
“The buckskin was shot and I was pinned under him. I managed to get my leg free but then I was shot. I crawled over to a tree. Then—nothing until you came.” His voice caught. “I died. But how—?”
Stephen jerked open his waistcoat and shirt. He drew her hand to the smooth skin of his chest. “There’s no mark, Lili. No sign of the shot.” His eyes closed briefly. “I cannot feel you touching me.”
“I know.” She yanked her hand away and pressed it against her side. “I felt the pain—here.” She turned away and pulled her blouse free from the waistband of her full skirts. Pushing aside the material, she rubbed her hand over her unblemished skin. “Nothing, no wound, no feeling.” She shivered and murmured a protective charm.
Stephen tugged her rigid body against his and stroked her hair.
“The devil is involved if we are dead, but yet here.”
“No. We did nothing but love each other.” Stephen’s voice shook her with its intensity.
“And now we are cursed because I cannot feel your arms around me. I can see you holding me, but I am dead to your touch.” She looked up at him.
He was lowering his head to kiss her when a groan echoed within the room. They spun around and saw a man on the floor in front of the fireplace as they faded into nothingness.